Managing Anxiety and Stress in Horses – Part 2


Last month I discussed anxiety and stress in horses and I would like to expand on with this subject having seen many horses showing stress linked disorders.

Anxiety and stress are created by a set of circumstances that disrupt the physiological processes involved in the functioning of the body. When the mind is in an anxious state it’s capable of causing some devastating effects that can quickly manifest into behavioural issues and subsequent physiological problems.

When the horse is confronted with a situation that evokes a fear response, it responds with a set of physiological reactions that prepares it to meet the threat of fight or flight. These reactions are controlled by the secretion of adrenalin. The presence of adrenalin in the body causes respiration to deepen, speeding up the heart rate and raising arterial pressure. Blood is moved away from the stomach and intestines, stopping digestive function, and is redirected to the heart, central nervous system and muscles. The secreted adrenalin cooperates with sympathetic nerve impulses which send a message to the liver to release stored glycogen to enable the blood to be flooded with sugar which will be directed to the muscles, heart and limbs for the preparation of intense physical activity needed for flight. The blood sugars invigorate tired muscles preparing the horse for action.

Under normal circumstances the increased respiration, redistributed blood and the red corpuscles provides essential oxygen for the removal of waste products. However in extreme circumstances, when the horse is subjected to stress over long periods, the body becomes over adrenalized; as a result the digestive system is unable to take in enough nutrients and the animal becomes thin and wasted, whilst other excretory organs are overloaded and weakened. Even though this is an extreme example it’s important to remember that there can be varying levels of these physiological symptoms present in the body and, given that equine digestive system requires continuous trickle feeding, it’s easy to see the dangers of anxiety and stress in causing potential damage in an animal with a small stomach that accounts for only 8 – 10% of the digestive system and has to cope with small amounts of food travelling through it. Unlike us, the horse produces hydrochloric acid continually so one of the effects of adrenalin in the body is that it shuts down the blood supply to the digestive system potentially causing acidic conditions and other complications.

Considering the interconnectedness of the various systems within the body, it’s easier to understand the viewpoint of Natural Medicine in treating the whole body in order to regain the balance of its function.

When making decisions on medications, it’s important to remember that the individuality of horses is no different from that of humans. Each of us has a unique set of requirements to maintain our health depending on factors ranging from genetic predisposition to acquired physical and psychological symptoms that influence the development of characteristics, behaviour, conformation and general demeanour. These are important factors when formulating treatments and the selection of herbs used for any individual medication should take this into consideration. It’s important to know exactly how each horse reacts under stressful circumstances because that can give me some idea of the medications needed. Some horses react with digestive issues, some with high heart rate, whilst others have a combination of reactions. Natural Therapies work exceedingly well when all these aspects are taken into consideration and can bring about some astounding results in restoring balance in all aspects of physical and mental health.





Managing Anxiety and Stress in Horses – Part 1

merry-4For horses, the role of natural medicine where anxiety and stress form part of the symptoms is to aid the balance of inner and external harmony between the two environments enabling a healthy functioning of the body.

The nervous system is a complex control mechanism that has a profound connection with the entire body and plays an important role between the external and internal environments in the form of sensory perception and psychological interpretation of the external world and the body’s physical reaction to it.

It is the system in the body that has the ability to store and associate sensory stimuli in the memory for future use enabling it to react quickly to changes in the two environments affecting changes in both the physical and mental states of the body.

The ability to react to this information is highly sophisticated in horses as is demonstrated by their remarkable motor coordination skills which are even more enhanced by the fact that horses are equipped with highly sensitive and acute perception, all of which can have profound effects on the physical and mental wellbeing of the body.

Because the horse is essentially a flight animal, it has a high dependence on the nervous system to interpret incoming stimuli and coordinate the functioning of the body to enable fast reactions to potential threatening situations.

Unfortunately, the two environments are often at odds with each other as mental interpretation of external stimuli can become clouded by conflicting information causing mental and physical exhaustion.

This is where natural medicine can be used to powerful effect by gently stimulating and relaxing the neural pathways of the nervous system re-establishing harmony to the system in combination with other herbs that effect weakened functioning of the other organs of the body.

Horses are very good at making associations and because they have an excellent memory, they sometimes cause difficulties for their trainers and riders. They make these associations by the linking of two external events. For example, a rustling in the hedge and a dog rushing out to attack or walking too close to a dominant horse initiates a kick. Learning by forming associations between actions and events prepares the horse for survival in a world of constantly changing situations.

In a herd this is very beneficial for the horse but when it is in a domestic environment, these associations can be the cause a lot of problems for trainers, riders and the horse, as bad responses are formed through associations initiated by a combination of a lack of understanding of how horses learn and bad training techniques.

For example, if the horse has been whipped for failing to comply with a rider’s demands, it will respond with a fear response every time a whip is produced. This experience is stored in the memory together with a set of behvioural responses that not only affect the mental wellbeing of the horse, but also the physical wellbeing causing anxiety for both the horse and any future owners. It is easy to see how behavioural problems manifest a life time of unhappiness as the horse is passed from owner to owner and the physiological state of the horse becomes more and more fragile.

Whilst herbal solutions for anxiety and stress aid in the recovery of balance within the body, it forms only part of ongoing therapy. Re-training, nutrition, chiropractic, massage, stretching and energy work can also be important factors for complete recovery. It’s also important to ensure that saddles and bridles are fitted correctly.

Les Rees